Published by:

  • Leadership – Speeches – Workshops
  • Personal Training – Consulting
  • Leadership – Marketing – Strategy

Vol. 3, No. 10
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

Adversity and How to Overcome It 

 © Copyright by William A. Cohen 2005 

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Wisdom of the Generals (Prentice Hall, 2001).The idea was to select some important areas of business and life, and to see what general and admirals through the years had to say about each. To be used, the contributors actually had to be a general or admiral. Even if someone were a head of state, he was included only if they had achieved this military rank. The idea was that these were individuals who had achieved the top of a very risky and demanding profession, one which others are increasingly pointing to as a terrific training ground for other endeavors, such as business.*

After the quotations, I added my thoughts about what these individuals were trying to tell us. In all, I used more than 300 ideas from more than 100 general and admiral contributors. These were in 62 different categories of subject matter. The very first was the category of adversity.

First, let’s first look at our five contributors to the adversity topic and see what they did in life:


General of the Army George C. Marshall, U.S. Army (1880 – 1959)

Marshall graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1901 and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant of Infantry a year later. He served in combat in the Philippines and later in France as a senior staff officer and a colonel, during World War I, but after the war reverted to the rank of captain. He was promoted to major in 1920 and lieutenant colonel in 1923. He became a colonel in 1933 and a brigade commander and brigadier general three years later. In 1938, he was appointed head of the War Plans Division, and became a major general. Later in the year, he became deputy chief of staff and then as a full general, Chief of Staff of the Army.  He built the Army from 200,000 to its wartime strength of 8,000,000. He was promoted to the rank of General of the Army in 1944. A speech he made calling for economic aid to reconstruct Europe led to the Marshal Plan. He became Secretary of State in 1947, and Secretary of Defense in 1950. He was the first military man to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.


Field Marshal Sir William Slim, British Army (1891-1970)

Slim received military training through Britain’s Officer Training Corps, and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant just prior to World War I. During the war, he served in various combat assignments in the Middle East and in France. Between wars he served in the Indian Army and again the Middle East. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier just prior to World War II. During the war, Slim held successively higher combat commands, and he captured Baghdad and invaded Iran.  He was transferred to India, and fought the Japanese in Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia and throughout South East Asia. He was made Chief of the Imperial General Staff and promoted to field marshal after the war. 


Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S. Navy (1840 – 1914)

For an admiral and naval strategist, Mahan had an unusual distinction: he was born at West Point, his father being a well-known military thinker and writer, and a professor there.  Mahan graduated from Annapolis in the class of 1859. He performed blockade duty during the Civil War and was promoted to lieutenant commander at the war’s end. Mahan was promoted to commander in 1872 and captain in 1885. He taught and eventually served as president at the Naval War College, afterwards writing The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660 – 1783, his most famous work, and other books. He commanded the steel cruiser Chicago on a European cruise and retired shortly thereafter in 1896. He was recalled to serve on the Naval War Board during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and was delegate to the peace conference at The Hague in 1899. Mahan became president of the American Historical Association in 1902 and was promoted to rear admiral while on the retired list in 1906.


Admiral of the Fleet Ernest J. King, U.S. Navy (1878-1956)

“Rey” King was commissioned an ensign on graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1901. However, while still a midshipman, he had already served on the U.S.S. San Francisco during the Spanish American War. During World War I, he served in the Atlantic Fleet and was promoted to captain. In the early 1920s, he took submarine training and commanded Submarine Division 11. At the age of 48, he took pilot training and received his wings. After a number of aviation commands, he was promoted to rear admiral and in 1933 became Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. Five years later, he was promoted to vice admiral and put in command of a five-carrier Aircraft Battle Force. In early 1941, he was promoted to full admiral and given command of the Atlantic Fleet during which period he directed the antisubmarine war against Germany even before U.S. entry into the war. As commander in chief, U.S. Fleet from 1942 on, he played a major role in naval strategy throughout the war. He was promoted to fleet admiral in 1944, and retired in 1945 serving as advisors to Secretaries of the Navy, and President until his death.


Napoleon Bonaparte, French Emperor  (1769-1821)

Napoleon is considered one of the “Great Captains” of history. He rose from being an obscure young officer during the French Revolution to becoming one of the most successful generals of the Republic, and finally Emperor of France.  He was a military genius who frequently succeeded against superior numbers to destroy the traditional armies of Europe and united much of Europe under his banner. Eventually the decisions to occupy Spain and to invade Russia combined with the adoption of many of his methods by his enemies led to his defeat and exile, a return, another defeat and his eventual death from what were given as natural causes while in exile. Recently his DNA was analyzed and it appears that he was actually poisoned.


Here’s what our contributing generals and admirals had to say about adversity:

Campaigns and battles are nothing but a long series of difficulties to be overcome. The lack of equipment, the lack of food, the lack of this or that; the real leader displays his quality in his triumphs over adversity, however great it may be. – General of the Army George C. Marshall, U.S. Army

I’m a hell of a general when I’m winning, anybody is, but it’s when you’re not winning – and I have not always been winning . . . – it is then that the real test of leadership is made. – Field Marshal Sir William Slim, British Army

It is the property of ordinary men, in times of danger, to see difficulties more clearly than advantages, and to shrink from steps which involve risk. – Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S. Navy

Difficulties” is the name given to things which it is our business to overcome. – Admiral of the Fleet Ernest J. King, U.S. Navy

How many things apparently impossible have nevertheless been performed by resolute men who had no alternative but death! – Napoleon Bonaparte, French Emperor

We all face adversity in our lives. That is a normal and natural part of living and in the practice of business. But, what could be more difficult than accomplishing a task in the challenging environment of the battlefield? Yet, those who are in this environment rarely have an alternative. To be successful, they must overcome great difficulties. As General Marshall points out, these difficulties are manifold and may include lack of food, lack of equipment, insufficient resources of every type including both material and manpower . . . even lack of sleep! Moreover, these problems probably are not short-lived, but may persist throughout a campaign lasting months. Under these circumstances, the real leader keeps going despite the adversity.

Mary Kay Ash, Chairperson Emeritus of Mary Kay Cosmetics, the woman who became famous by giving away pink Cadillacs to her most successful salespeople, said that the successful salesperson and the successful leader must learn to take lemons (problems) and turn them into lemonade (opportunities). She did it herself when a few short weeks before she was to open her business.  Her husband died of a heart attack, taking away what was to have been her source of income and support while building her business. She already had invested her life savings of $5000. So, she made lemonade, determined that instead of becoming profitable after a year, she would need to become profitable almost immediately. And she did it, building a billion-dollar corporation and giving tens of thousands of women the opportunity to earn high income at a time when most could not. As Napoleon points out, how many impossible things become possible if men (or women) are determined to overcome adversity and make it so?

Sure, it’s easy to succeed when you have no adversity to overcome, but this is often not the case in life. Field Marshal Slim notes that he was considered one heck of a smart operator when he was successful. The problem was, he had failures, too. Everyone does, and everyone has problems, too. As someone said, there are no dreams without dragons. It is slaying those dragons and overcoming your adversities that are the real tests that you face whether you are on the battlefield or selling Mary Kay Cosmetics. And then, how sweet is the victory!

Unfortunately many see only the dragons, and simply give up. What a tragedy! How terrible it would have for Mary Kay if she had only focused on the unfortunate sudden death of her husband and the lack of income she had counted on? What would have happened had she given up? Many others would have. How terrible it would have been for the tens of thousands of women who have profited from the opportunity she created for them, and the millions of customers who swear by her products. Admiral Mahan finds that ordinary people simply see the downside too clearly, and so they shrink from the task and quit because of adversity they consider overwhelming. Yet, Admiral King says that difficulties are simply the name of things it is our business to overcome.

Years ago, when I was a first-year cadet at West Point, we were told that the only acceptable responses to an upper classman’s inquiry were “yes sir!” no sir!” and “no excuse sir!” It was difficult at first. Our prior experiences at home and at school had taught us to respond to criticism by immediately making excuses. Now we were being taught that there was no excuse, regardless of the difficulties and adversities which we faced. And believe me, there were plenty.

Now you may think that’s a little extreme. After all, there are sometimes real reasons, physical laws of man or nature which cannot be overcome. No excuse, sir, indeed! But I want to tell you something. That extreme attitude and being corrected for infractions that were our responsibility taught me a lesson in accountability that has lasted a lifetime. Before, I thought adversary meant that there was always an excuse. Afterwards, I thought the opposite. I think that there must always be a way of overcoming adversity or the difficulties in any situation if I just look hard enough. And guess what? In most cases I have found this to be true. 

Many successful people I have met and talked to, both in and out of the military have come to the same conclusion. They feel there is always a way. Successful people do what unsuccessful people simply won’t do. I have modified this in looking at leadership to reflect that successful leaders do what less successful leaders simply won’t do. In truth, this is true of all human actions or endeavors. Successful men and women face adversity of equal difficulty as anyone else. But they believe there is always a way to overcome it.

About adversity, the wisdom of the generals is:

  •     All successful projects are simply a long series of adversities which must be overcome
  •     Far from it being unusual to face adversity, it is normal, and it is our business to overcome it
  •     The real test is not when we are successful when there is no adversity, but when there is and we triumph
  •      When we face these challenges and position them so that we feel we have no alternative, that there can be no excuses, we can accomplish the impossible


*  Wisdom of the Generals is no longer in print, but I have a few copies available. They are $22 each plus $4.95 p&h . Although normally I do not sell books from this Web Site, I do make an exception in this case, and I do take Master or Visa cards.


There is no education like adversity.

                                                                                                        – Benjamin Disraeli